Opposition cleric mourned as Iran tightens censors

By Thomas Erdbrink
Monday, December 21, 2009

TEHRAN -- The religious leader of Iran's opposition movement, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, died on Sunday at his home in the Shiite Muslim holy city of Qom, dealing a blow to human rights and democracy advocates who considered him their spiritual guide.

Doctors and relatives said Montazeri, 87, died in his sleep of multiple organ failure.

The death of the ayatollah, who was once designated to lead the Islamic republic, comes during an already tense Shiite mourning period, called Muharram, which millions will observe by taking to the streets in the coming nights to mourn a revered Shiite saint.

State media omitted Montazeri's religious titles in the first brief reports of his death, a sign that they were playing down his influence.

Some opposition figures fear that authorities might try to prevent mourning ceremonies for Montazeri out of concern that they could lead to anti-government protests.

Opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi declared Monday a day of public mourning for Montazeri and called on Iranians to take part in a funeral ceremony to be held Monday in Qom.

According to the opposition Web site Rahesabz, Mousavi and Karroubi plan to attend the funeral, although it said government agents have warned political activists not to travel to Qom, threatening arrest.

"There are many security forces stationed in the streets," said Saeed Montazeri, 41, one of Montazeri's children, speaking by telephone from Qom. "But they are not doing anything for now." In the background, the sounds of large crowds could be heard.

"I hope the government will be wise and not create obstacles for tomorrow's burial," he said.

In Washington, the White House offered condolences. Montazeri "was known and internationally respected for his unwavering commitment to universal rights," National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said.

Thousands of people are traveling to Qom, local media reported. Authorities denied foreign correspondents permission to travel to the city, which is about 90 miles south of Tehran, and warned domestic news media not to discuss the cleric's political stances but to emphasize criticisms of Montazeri from the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

Security forces later stopped a busload of dissidents from Tehran en route to the funeral, seized cellphones and ID cards, and arrested at least four women's rights activists, the opposition Web site kaleme.net reported.

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